Slate’s discussion on the proliferation of Chinese messaging applications worldwide cited Citizen Lab research report “Asia Chats: Analyzing Information Controls & Privacy in Asian Messaging Applications.” In the article, author Nathan Freitas explains increased attraction towards applications such as WeChat in both the Chinese telecommunications market as well as a number of foreign countries. In the mainland, WhatsApp, Viber, Line, Twitter and Facebook are frequently the subject of blockage, prompting users to look for the same services in state-approved mobile software. In particular, the promise of free phone calls and messaging has drawn many users. A number of these users are members of the Chinese diaspora and even non-Chinese living elsewhere, drawn to the aforementioned features as well as aggressive celebrity marketing and a polished chat interface.
This growth has not come without privacy and security concerns. Every time a message is sent on WeChat, it’s servers, managed by Tencent, are responsible for routing the communication. These are largely based in Shanghai, where data servers are under the jurisdiction of Chinese law, and can be viewed and censored by Chinese officials as a result. This means that censorship of certain keywords considered politically sensitive by the Chinese government, such as “Tianmen Square” or “Occupy Central” may be expanding beyond their borders. As explained in the Asia Chat report, the list of censored keywords varies by location, meaning a sensitive message sent from a Canadian city to the United States (or vice versa) may not be blocked. The same sensitive message from within China is likely to be blocked, though in both cases the profiles that send and receive the message are likely to be flagged.
Related concerns include the possibility that non-Chinese citizens can be have their communications surveilled and logged. WeChat accounts are tied to phone numbers and SIM cards, meaning that full address books are accessible to the app. Simply being in a group chat with individuals sympathetic to Tibetan political resistance or the Uighur community can lead to your name being flagged as dangerous, which can be detrimental to chances of getting a visa in the future. Furthermore, the app’s access to microphones, cameras, location services, address book, photos and more means increased susceptibility to Remote Access Trojans and similar malware. Questions remain as to whether Chinese companies that produce similar software have any incentive to work to protect the privacy and security of their users.